Books That Blew My Mind: “The Transcendent Unity of Religions”

[In] the case of intellectual intuition, knowledge is not possessed by the individual insofar as he is an individual, but insofar as in his innermost essence he is not distinct from his Divine Principle. Thus metaphysical certitude is absolute because of the identity between the knower and the known in the Intellect. ~ Frithjof Schuon

By the time I stumbled into Frithjof Schuon, I had been reading into esoteric practice from various angles for a long while. Yet, somehow, I had almost entirely missed the Traditionalist/Perennialist approach. When reading Huston Smith’s memoir, Tales of Wonder, the author mentioned his own initial run-in with Schuon’s work, dropping the title The Transcendent Unity of Religions as his first foray. Despite Smith’s warning that the book is deceptively difficult for its page count, I immediately ordered myself a copy and excitedly began to read as soon as it got to me.

For those unfamiliar with him, it needs to be said that Schuon is a very difficult writer, whether one is reading one of his English volumes, or a translation into English. This is not because he is a bad writer. In fact, the complexity of his subject matter is such that I am inclined to say that he is one of the greatest essayists who ever set pen to paper! It is that very complexity which can make his books slow going. But, by God, are they worth the time and effort. The Transcendent Unity of Religions struck me the same way René Guénon’s books struck a young Schuon: “At last, a man who sees it the very way I do!” may have been words spoken, once in German and once in English, separated by decades, yet converging in a single instant of recognition, eyes locking across a gulf of eternity’s mercy. I was refreshed, exhilarated, and exhausted by the read (and constant backtracking, to make sure I was following).

The sophistication of the metaphysical observation made again and again throughout Schuon’s catalog is astounding, yet altogether obvious for a man or woman of a certain intellectual temperament. There is no attempt at making the shallow claim that all religions are identical, nor even the more interesting but equally wrong claim that they all make use of the same moral lessons and methods to reach the same Goal. He instead recognizes the distinction between exoteric religion and esoteric Dharma. Though the esoteric paradoxically transcends the exoteric — in the sense that practitioners of exoteric religion may be permitted, as the fruit of their sincere growth of character and worship, into the Holy of Holies — it must anchor itself to the world, and to humanity, by way of the formalisms of religion. It is thus that Sanatana Dharma, or sophia perennis, is seen as the transcendent-immanent Law and Wisdom that it is, while the revealed faiths of the world are given their place as gateways which may lead us inward to meet it. It is thus not at the level of name and form that the religions converge — often in fact opposing one another in necessary, though contingent, ways on this plane. Rather, it is only at the Heights of verticality (or the Depths of inwardness) that they become transcended, and, having gone beyond them in their limited forms, that they find their Goal in the Self or Divinity.

It is this point which liberal universalists and religious partisans miss alike. To the religious partisans, we may say that it is worthless to argue over who has the monopoly on Truth, as Truth defies merely mental and sentimental attempts at codification. To the universalists, we retort that we are well within our rights to defend our religions against assaults from outside and to stick closely to our traditional practices, for it is only thus that we retain our centrality — our humanity, in the fullest sense. In either case, we assert that the revelations and religions of the world cannot be understood “academically”, from the outside, but that Tradition-as-such can only be understood from inside a tradition. Similarly, religious traditions cannot be merely cannibalized for “techniques”; they are not golems or robots, but organically grown, distinct “personalities” unto themselves and, just as with animals, to analyze is to kill. Out of the killing ignorance, both mistakes arise naturally and inevitably, yet we must avoid falling into them ourselves.

Not much of this was news to me upon reading Schuon for the first time, but finally I did not feel quite so isolated in the observation and, just as importantly, I now had language with which to speak of it! Aside from this one overarching metaphysic, however, Schuon delves deeply into the esoterics of religious doctrine and practice and surfaces with treasures of the Intellect which take many lifetimes to discover for oneself. These lessons have had just as much impact upon me over time, and each re-reading of a Schuon book brings fresh rewards.

For as much as I love The Transcendent Unity of Religions, I probably should have listened to Huston Smith and gone with one of his other books first. With that in mind, if you’ve never read Frithjof Schuon before, and you want a good place to start, please allow me to suggest you begin with either Language of the Self or Survey of Metaphysics and Esoterism.